Issue Date: April 2010
Life Stories

Breast cancer survivors bring their journeys to the stage.
by Kristen Hampshire

Bridgette  A Wimberly 

Articles, reviews, script excepts  

By Angela Townsend, The Plain Dealer 
December 10, 2014 at 12:00 PM, updated December 11, 2014 at 9:07 AM.

DeVonna White, left, Denise Richmond Kelley and Cheryl Williams are members of SHOWS - Survivors Helping Other Women Survive - a group of women whose participation in a playwriting workshop at The Gathering Place in 2009 led to the creation of several short plays about their experiences with breast cancer. ( McKinley Wiley).

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Five years ago, a group of women met at The Gathering Place in Beachwood for a playwriting class for cancer survivors. Their assignments turned into plays about breast cancer, and a tool for entertaining and educating at the same time.  

From 12 to 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 13, excerpts from two of those plays by members of the group - named Survivors Helping Other Women Survive - will be staged as part of a breast cancer screening outreach event that includes a post-play discussion session and free mammogram sign-up. The event will be at PNC Fairfax Connection, 8220 Carnegie Ave., Cleveland.

In 2009 The Gathering Place, a cancer support center, offered a two-month workshop led by playwright Bridgette Wimberly. The plays didn't necessarily have to be about their cancer experiences, but that's what they ended up being about.

Cheryl "CW" Williams of Highland Hills had no grand expectations when she first attended the playwriting workshop, which met every Saturday.
"I never thought I would be able to write a play," said Williams, 68, who recently celebrated six years since finishing her cancer treatment. I never really had anything that I could put on paper. No real story, nothing really to tell."

After three weeks of the workshop, Williams still had nothing to share.  That quickly changed when she reconnected with an old friend she hadn't talk to in years. The woman had called Williams out of the blue. Williams told her about her breast cancer diagnosis, and how a mammogram had saved her life.
Instead of sharing in Williams' gratitude, the woman instead told Williams that it was such tests and other treatments that put people at greater risk for cancer.
"I hit the ceiling," Williams said. "I couldn't believe that anyone felt that way."
A heated exchange ensued. Then Williams hung up the phone.

"After I calmed down, that's when I decided to write my play about the argument - and how we hide behind our fears," she said. "As soon as that happened, I said, 'This is my story.' "

That story turned into "The Argument," a play about how differing views of breast cancer challenge a friendship.

DeVonna White of Shaker Heights said she knew right away what her play would be about.
"I realized my journey was something I needed to expose," said White, who was 32 and the mother of a toddler when in 2006 she found a lump in her breast while nursing.
Doctors not only told her that she had breast cancer, but that she was pregnant again.

"I felt that I had something unique to say, that this happens to young women," said White, whose children are 6 months, 6 and 10 years old.

White didn't want to jeopardize her pregnancy; she said she and her physicians couldn't agree on an acceptable treatment plan beyond surgery.

"I was looking at different avenues of healing," said White. Although she ended up losing the pregnancy, White continued her search for alternative therapies, and took advantage of the free Reiki, massage and yoga classes for cancer patients and survivors offered at The Gathering Place.

Her story became "Birthing Hope," a play about a pregnant women's dilemma of what to do when she is diagnosed with breast cancer.

"I thought it was just going to be a class I attended," White said. "It ended up creating relationships."

Out of that workshop was created 11 short plays. They were staged at the FusionFest performing arts festival in 2010, with the late actress and activist Ruby Dee lending her star power to the event.
Wimberly, the playwright, then crafted the works into a longer play, "From Breast Cancer to Broadway."
The play had a four-week run at Karamu House Theatre in Cleveland, followed by an off-Broadway stint in New York City.

Excerpts from the other plays – including "Waking Up," which addresses disparities in health care, and "The Awakening," which is centered around a caregiver who has to cope with a cancer diagnosis – were performed this fall at two churches in Cleveland.

Williams, who hasn't seen her own play staged in more than a year, is excited about the opportunity to share her story with more people. The event at PNC Fairfax is the first time the works are being presented at a free community event. The Gathering Place hopes to put on more of the events in 2015.

"Even if they're in smaller chunks, the messages are still as powerful," Williams said.

A daughter’s love helps her mother face breast cancer.    Siblings battle over who can provide the best care for their sister. A parent suffering from Alzheimer’s disease struggles to understand her daughter’s diagnosis.
These are just a few of the real stories that will come to the Cleveland Play House stage April 24 for From Breast Cancer to Broadway. Over the course of six weeks, 11 African-American breast cancer survivors met for writing workshops at The Gathering Place with poet and playwright Bridgette Wimberly, who helped them craft their stories into a stage production.  “We really bared our souls,” says Sabrina Heath, who completed her treatment last May  “There are a wide range of experiences within the group — that is what I really enjoyed.”  That experience of dealing with the disease, whether it be for just a few months or 20 years, led to a strong sisterhood as the group poured out the most trying moments of their journeys. The result, the women hope, will inspire others.

“The plays tell stories that, especially in the African-American community, we don’t talk a whole lot about,” says Cordi Stokes, the daughter of former Cleveland mayor Carl Stokes. By going through the writing process, the women confronted emotions some had buried deep and learned to discuss the impact cancer has had on them and their families. In her play, Stokes opens a family vein and discusses her daughter’s role in helping her work through treatment. “I think she thought part of me had been taken away from her, or she was looking at my death,” Stokes says.

Some of the moments presented in the show are humorous, though. Finding comedy in the everyday was important for Heath, who decided to write a play centered on what her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother must have been thinking about her cancer diagnosis.  “When I lost all my hair and I didn’t have my wig on, she would rub my head and say, ‘Sweetie, how are you doing? … Don’t you look pretty,’ ” Heath recalls.  Before deciding on the story each would tell, the 11 participants were asked to share a perspective of their breast cancer story they felt would resonate with others facing the disease. Before deciding on the story each would tell, the 11 participants were asked to share a perspective of their breast cancer story they felt would resonate with others facing the disease.

“I think all women are terrified of getting breast cancer, especially in the African-American community, where people die a lot more from it or get recurrences,” says Wimberly, who drew inspiration from her sister, Bernadette Scruggs, who was diagnosed with breast cancer almost four years ago. “Women won’t even go to get a mammogram because they don’t want to know [the results].”

For Heath, the opportunity to put herself in her mother’s shoes was therapeutic. “She was experiencing this with the barrier of a memory issue, so she couldn’t really express herself,” Heath says. “Life is never going to be the way it was, but you can’t go back. You have to keep moving, keep moving forward.”

Stokes can relate. She too struggled to see her life after cancer in the same way. “It took me the journey to be able to look at myself and say, ‘You’re still the same person."